Mickey Ross, the graying mogul played by Al Pacino in David Mamet’s cockamamie new play China Doll, has a scheme to fly off into the sunset with his gorgeous young girlfriend. To that end, he’s just made the down payment on a $60-million Swiss jet, which is waiting on the tarmac in Toronto, where he’s stashed the GF while he sews up some loose ends at home in the States before joining her and heading to London.
The loose ends get in the way. End of story, though not, sad to say, of China Doll. No, that end is a very long two hours off. The time is not totally wasted, because some of the greatness of Pacino missing in recent performances has returned with a vengeance. Set in Mickey’s apartment (a rare disaster from designer Derek McLane that bears a closer resemblance to the main floor of a corporate headquarters than anywhere a human would actually live), China Doll is virtually a monologue, possibly with more lines than Richard III, a favorite role of Pacino’s.
Most of Mickey’s time is passed on the phone with the manufacturer of the jet, with his lawyer, with a high-powered, politically connected publicist, and with the girlfriend. Some is taken up with orders barked to his would-be protegé (Christopher Denham, perfect). Mickey learns the plane has been grounded because his scheme involved avoiding taxes on the buy. This has provided an opportunity for the former governor’s son, now running for office, to make an example of Ross, payback for switching allegiance.
Plays depending on phone conversations with unseen participants are almost always a bad idea, and China Doll is no exception. However, bad as it is (and worse still after the intermission), China Doll has one major asset, and that is the star’s unrequited commitment. It may be a dopey play that keeps tripping over its MEGO-inducing minutiae, but Pacino delivers every line with relish, with mustard, onions, the works: The hand raised, thumb against forehead, while absorbing bad news. The flash of anger in a raised voice that inspired genuine fear. The hangdog gaze of eyes that have seen it all and more and can respond only with weariness.
As if apologizing to the audience, Pacino seems determined to paint a world that Mamet has lazily denied him, defined by petty backstabbing politicians, sycophantic hangers-on, tax-dodging, shelter-seeking masters of the universe and savvy corporate functionaries. That’s a tough assignment for an actor given no more than a wireless headset to play off (along with, occasionally, the humorously eager but stolid Denham). I loved that in Act I, Mickey’s wearing an unbuttoned tux and patent leather shoes, and in Act II the next day, he’s put on velvet opera slippers. Cool guy, even in defeat. And I don’t mean defeat by a vindictive pol.